4 Historical Figures With Undeserved Reputations
The thing about history is that it tends to concern people who are no longer at liberty to say, "Uh, wait, I can explain." Thanks to the troubling lack of blogs published by historical figures, we pretty much have to take the word of whoever was around and literate, so naturally, sometimes we get it wrong. It's okay. It happens ...
Shakespeare Wrecked Richard III To Make A Point
Had Shakespeare known we'd be using his silly little plays as our primary reference points for tons of historical figures centuries later, he might have been a bit more careful, and he did Richard III especially dirty. His incarnation of the English ruler is about as physically cartoonish as a human villain can get, with a hunchback and a withered arm, and he flits about arranging the deaths of anyone who inconveniences him, if not stabbing them himself. You might think it's not possible for a person to be that straight-up evil, and it's probably not.
In reality, Richard III probably didn't kill anyone Shakespeare wrote that he did. In some cases, we're certain: Prince Edward died in battle, and most of his other supposed victims were ordered killed by Edward IV with no apparent input from Richard. In fact, he was downright salty about the execution of the Duke of Clarence. As for the "princes in the tower," no one knows what happened to them. It's possible that Richard had them murdered, but there's no evidence either way, and he'd already declared them illegitimate, so it would give a whole new meaning to the word "overkill." Also, not that it matters, but he wasn't a hunchback. He had scoliosis that caused one shoulder to sit slightly lower than the other and made him walk a little funny. His arm was fine.
So what was Shakespeare's problem? Mostly that he was living in the Elizabethan era. In a weird collision of dynasties, Edward IV was Lizzy's great-grandfather, so he couldn't be portrayed as a murdery scumbag, but his brother was fair game. It was essentially the real-life version of the plays about the royal family on Game of Thrones -- in fact, Tyrion Lannister was largely based on Richard III. Did Shakespeare have to write the story at all? Maybe not, but he had a bigger point to make. At the time, the succession was on everyone's mind, what with the whole "Virgin Queen" thing, and the possibly secretly Catholic Shakespeare was no fan of the powerful Cecil family, who endorsed the Protestant James VI of Scotland for the position. It's possible that Richard III was meant as a stand-in for William Cecil's second son, Robert, who did have a hunchback and "a reputation for dissimulation," i.e., a taste for chaos, and Shakespeare banked on his audience recognizing the allusion. Today, though, we only know Robert Cecil as -- seriously? The Iron Bank guy on Game of Thrones? This shit is more interlinked than those royals.
John Calvin Drank And Banged
If you know anything about the Calvinists, it's probably that they're not the most fun bunch. John Calvin, in particular, is generally remembered as "a dour man with a slight stoop and a pointed beard" who "never laughed but scolded, abhorred, and preached about the sins of the flesh" and "ran about the town of Geneva in self-absorbed hurry, with rarely a kind word or nod for anyone." He was the Puritan to end all Puritans before Puritans were even a thing, condemning sinners and burning witches without ever cracking a smile. Right?
It turns out Calvin was a lot more lenient than we've been led to believe, at least where he was concerned. After he stepped down from the pulpit, he was known to enjoy a glass of wine and a rousing game of lawn bowling, like any perfectly normal middle-aged dad. Ernest Hemingway, he was not, but neither was he the human yardstick he's imagined to be.
He didn't have any particular beef with boning, either, as long as people didn't go too crazy with it. He "believed that we should enjoy the gifts of God in a proper way," i.e., saving your trips to Pound Town for your spouse but taking them often, and his letters show that he "had a very warm relationship" with the legal recipient of his own poundings. He was even known to write the occasional joke into his sermons. Basically, he was less Frollo and more your groovy youth pastor, but he was pretty shy, so he could seem standoffish. That's it. There's also some stuff about predestination and other beliefs he had that we've gotten wrong, but who cares about that when there's drinkin' and plowin'?
Pontius Pilate Just Did What Jesus Wanted
Pontius Pilate is the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to die on the cross, so like, that's not a great look. In both biblical and historical accounts, he's portrayed as either a weak-willed flip-flopper or a straight-up villain. Meanwhile, tons of medieval paintings depict him literally washing his hands of Jesus's death, so that's pretty much all you need to know about how he was historically viewed.
He was also played by David Bowie, so you take the good, you take the bad.
Which is probably why he really just wanted to stay out of it. According to Italian historian Aldo Schiavone, who pored over every document we have about the whole thing and subsequently wrote a book in 2017, Pilate wasn't thrilled about being dragged into all this "king of Jews" business. As far as he was concerned, it was a problem for the Jewish folks to settle amongst themselves that had nothing to do with him, but the Jewish authorities insisted on bringing him into it. It's not that he had anything against Jesus. On the contrary, from what Schiavone could put together of their conversations, he liked the guy. Jesus had that effect on people.
In fact, Pilate had "tried repeatedly to suggest a punishment short of death," and the only reason he seemed to have backed down is that he realized Jesus apparently had no interest in defending himself. Under interrogation, he always answered questions with more questions, which would automatically earn a death sentence in a just world on the grounds of being annoying, and generally seemed weirdly peacefully resigned to his fate, and Pilate "became persuaded -- strongly influenced by the man's aura -- not to oppose his design." Sure, "He hypnotized me into killing him" seems like a dubious defense, but that guy could heal the blind. Not even the Harry Potter wizards can do that.
Lewis Carroll Was Quite the Ladies' Man
If you know anything about the context of Alice in Wonderland and/or the life of its author, you probably think of him as a big weirdo who was way too into his buddy's young daughter and little girls in general, and it's easy to see why. There are the naked pictures, for one thing. There's no arguing that Charles Dodgson, the real man behind the Carroll pen name, took nude photographs of children, and even if they were only 1% of his vast body of photography, that's 1% entirely too many. He never married, and for a long time, there was little evidence of any romantic or sexual relationships with adults of any gender. His falling out with Alice's family was notoriously mysterious and rumored to have been caused by his inappropriate behavior toward the children. He said shit like, "I like all children except little boys."
But long after biographers pointed out all these facts and cemented Dodgson's reputation in the modern mind, evidence surfaced that not only did he prefer the grown ladies, he was a downright scoundrel. Right through his 40s and 50s, he wrote salacious invitations, usually to women in their 20s, that made pointed reference to a "Mrs. Grundy," who was "British society's fictitious guardian of morality," as in, "Are you sufficiently unconventional (I think you are) to defy Mrs. Grundy and come down to spend the day with me at Oxford?" It seems these invitations weren't at all unwanted, as one contemporary dubbed him a "greying satyr in sheep's clothing." Karoline Leach, the historian who first brought this evidence to public attention in her 1999 biography, even believes that Dodgson's designs on Alice's family concerned not her or any of her sisters but her mother -- since he wasn't known to let a woman's wedding ring stop him. Just a few years before his death at 65, Dodgson boasted, "In fact, most of my 'child'-friends (specially those who come to stay with me at Eastbourne) are now about 25."
So how did we get it twisted? Well, in Victorian society, it was much less scandalous to have a gaggle of "child-friends" than to be a big man-whore. Child sexual abuse was an even less-acknowledged thing back then than it is now, so it was considered perfectly innocent to hang out with kids and even take nude photos of them, which often appeared on a family's Christmas cards. What wasn't okay was to slut around with a bunch of young women of varied marital status, so Dodgson played up his image as the king of "child society," both to save face and probably to keep the guards of his unsuspecting adult targets down.
It didn't (or did, from his perspective?) help that Alice's older sister Ina told one early biographer that he stopped hanging around the family because he "became too affectionate" to Alice, but she later acknowledged in a letter to Alice herself that she lied. Why? It might be because other sources contend that he had actually been flirting with Ina (who was 14 at the time, which was considered perfectly marriageable, just not to a low-class creep like Dodgson) and their nanny. One of these sources is a note left in one of his diaries summarizing the contents of a section of missing pages. It's believed that after his death, his family destroyed large parts of his diaries specifically to conceal the activities of his prolific wang and protect his reputation, ironically setting the stage for a much worse one.
Top image: BBC, Universal Pictures